Lucy Clifford: ‘Jazz means forever evolving daily’

Sure, the COVID-19 pandemic has been hell, but it had some upsides: for instance, it urged bassist Lucy Clifford to come back home to Sydney from New York, where she’s normally based these days, and get to play more with the local scene, form a great band, win the Jann Rutherford Memorial Award, record a brilliant tune, and perform at the SIMA program — not too bad, right?
Now she’s presenting her music at the Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival, which means Melburnians will get the chance to see the Berklee alumna up-close. One friendly warning, though: you may need to bring your sunglasses to the gig, otherwise you may be blinded by the smile on her face, when she plays the bass — the expression of pure happiness.

How has your journey in music been so far?

I’d say that I am a lifelong student of music, and the journey has involved a series of ebbs and flows of lessons, obsessions, frustrations, but mostly it keeps me falling in love over and over again. Whether it’s with a new artist I’m listening to, or a style of music that I’ve recently discovered, a new musical project, or a new artist that I get the chance to play with. These parts of the journey are what keep me hooked.

I’m very much a bassist in the sense that for a long time I’ve been in that supportive role, playing for a variety of artists of different genres. And with that I’ve had the good fortune to travel to different parts of the world, and live in The US. That exposure to different people and different sounds I think are what I consider to be some of the highlights.

But also, these last two years and being the 2022 Jann Rutherford Award Recipient has been a real personal highlight for me as it’s really given me the push to pursue my own music, a goal I’ve held for over 10 years.

Why are platforms like MWIJF and SIWJF important? Why do we need female-centred initiatives in jazz?

I think the importance of these platforms and initiatives lies in their ability to build community for female and gender-diverse musicians. Whether they are performance or education based, actively building these spaces to grow connections, friendships, and act as safe spaces to talk, share and be inspired is an essential piece to our musical and personal development.

We know there are fewer women in music than our male counterparts, and knowing other women out there that share similar feelings and experiences has really helped me move through so many situations in my musical career.

Creating access points through these initiatives for younger women to learn from champion female mentor figures, such as Sandy Evans and Andrea Keller for example, really helps keep the saying alive — ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ — the same can be said for nurturing the future generations of artists.

How did you get into jazz?

I played in a rock band with my sister, and right in the middle of my Red Hot Chilli Peppers obsession, my school music teacher introduced me to the local Music Conservatorium Jazz Program, and I was like “wowaa, what’s this!?” I’ve really been hooked ever since.

What does jazz mean to you?

My understanding of Jazz is forever evolving daily. The more you study or the more you listen to, the more you hear people that inspire you talk about the music, or you dive into the history, the more you realise you don’t really know much at all. This musical culture holds so much power as a form of expression and in its history, I know I’m deeply inspired by the music, its predecessors and its current evolution too.

What are the differences and similarities between the NY and Sydney scenes?

I think the diversity of New York City, in its social, cultural, political and economic landscapes really contribute toward the artistic range of that city. NYC is huge, and draws people in from all over the world, which means a lot of musicians in terms of numbers, and with that comes a work ethic I’ve not seen anywhere else. Although Sydney is bite size in comparison, the level of musicianship here stands incredibly tall and always has. I owe a lot to Sydney, it played such a big part in my formative years, when I was getting my head around music, and then perhaps Boston and New York were where I really sunk my teeth in. I think maybe some deeper inquiries in both music and life happened in those two cities.

What would you say to a total stranger to make them come to your MWIJF performance?

This music really aims to ignite your spirit, in whatever form that takes place, for both the musicians and its listeners. I love the idea of inviting people in, and I’m always exploring my version of how to do that.

This music is inspired by my love of Jazz, I wouldn’t necessarily say its Jazz, but it definitely borrows or builds on a lot of those elements. It’s also shaped by my love of other kinds of music too, and it traverses between many genres, building symbiotic rhythms and pulses that interlock with all things motion, stillness and freedom in between.

I feel so honoured to have this incredible Melbourne based band joining me, including Ashley Ballat on trumpet, Phil Noy on tenor, Andrea Keller on piano, and Darryn Farrugia on drums. You should really just come to hear these musicians for sure! We also have Ellie Lamb directing the MWIJF Little Big Band as the opening set too. This ensemble is amazing and will be playing compositions by Australian composers Vanessa Perica, Jenna Cave, Andrea Keller and Nadje Noordhuis, so it’s going to be such a wonderful evening of music, we really hope you join us Melbourne!

Lucy Clifford performs at the Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival on Wednesday 7 December